The problem with the “power-sharing” expectation in China-US relations

by Chris Zappone

The respected Australian security studies analyst Hugh White has argued for some time that the US should “accommodate” a rising China in a power-sharing agreement in the Western Pacific. The view is broadly shared by former prime ministers Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

White argues that China and the US are strategic rivals and while China is plainly rising, it should not be denied its zone of influence in Asian security affairs. The US should instead acknowledge the inevitable rise of China will cede responsibility and power to it to ensure security in the region. The US should not try to hold on to its grip of security in the region which has been in place since the end of WWII.

White’s view sounds good on paper. But the reality is not nearly so clear-cut. His view seems to assume some kind of civilized handover of power between the US and a China that mirrors the sort of diplomatic protocol common in the US, Australia and other Western nations. One only has to look to China’s strategy of raising the pressure on neighbors in the East China Sea to understand that White’s view represents a kind of well-meaning fantasy.

But it’s one of many fantasies that have underpinned China’s rise. The Western fantasy always was that China would open to Western companies, to Western ideas, to Western-designed international bodies of governance, and finally, to Western influence as it marched toward modernism.

No doubt China is modernising. But often its strides come at the expense of Western countries as well as the notion of fair play. And what’s becoming of that rules-based order that has dominated world affairs since the end of WWII? Well, it’s eroding. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas chief Jared Cohen writes, China is a signatory to international agreements on copyright laws.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in 2011, then Chinese president Hu Jintao privately told a small group of business leaders that China would ‘fully implement all of the intellectual property laws as required by the WTO and modern Western practices.’ We attended this meeting, and as we filed out of the room after President Hu’s comments, the American business contingent clearly expressed scepticism toward his claim….

The treaties of which China is a signatory are either unenforced or ignored by China. Increasingly, China and Western businesses make a cynical trade-off. Basically, companies can hand over their technology for access to China’s markets. The Germans do it. The US does. All modern economies hand over technology in exchange for access to China. It’s all done in the hope that the value of access to China will lead to justifiable profits from China. Basically, a blue skies projection.

But the reality is a lot less beneficial to Western business, economies and standards of living.

Likewise, in the realm of security, Hugh White and others believe that China can be “accommodated” and it will prevent an inevitable clash. But that belief assumes that inside China there is a rational decision-making apparatus that wants to avoid risk. The reality on the ground is that it’s never clear who is making decisions in China, and obviously, avoiding risk is pretty low on their priority.

Basically, it reminds me of a phrase I have heard from a US policymaker, which is that the US must deal with the China that is, not the one it hopes for. Security analysts may be well-served to do the same.